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Transcript from IMKC "Ageism in the Time of Coronavirus"

Kimberlé Crenshaw: COVID-19 has changed everything, halting life as we know it in its tracks. To respond to this global pandemic and to adapt to this new way of life, we’re doing things a bit more DIY than usual. We’re not in the studio and we’re dispersed all over the country, but we did want to respond to the urgent need for information, bringing to you the voices some of the leading experts to help us grapple with the new and not-so-new dimensions of this crisis.

Ageism is one of those isms that impacts all of us at some point. But oddly enough, it's the one that most people don't really think about. And when I've thought about it myself, I've thought about moments in my family's life, my mother's life, in which I very much felt that her skills and her authority in her job were being undermined. Because she was perceived as an older teacher as opposed to someone that had 40 years of expertise and had many generations of students that she'd successfully mentored.

And I've seen ageism play out in medical settings. I've seen it play out even in death, when unknown causes of the death of older people don't prompt any desire to actually find out what happened. Because after all, they're older.

I think though, having seen and heard how ageism is playing out in this moment in quips that suggests, for example, that COVID is a baby boomer remover. I suspect some people were probably thinking about some baby boomers, namely one who lives in the white house or one who's running for president. What it definitely reflects is the failure to recognize that those baby boomers and older who are most at risk are those who are people of color, those who have worked their entire lives for other people. And retire without benefits or without housing security to actually be able to shelter in place safely, to ride this out. When we use these frames that denigrate one part of our population thinking that they're represented by those who are most powerful or most dominant, in that we are repeating the same kind of erasure and marginalization that intersectionality was designed to address in the first place.

So here's another place where we take intersectional thinking. If we know this is part of an unrecognized dimension of social disempowerment, ageism, what happens when we think about how it intersects with other forms of disempowerment like racism and patriarchy, and heterosexism. They're playing out in front of our very eyes as the COVID virus wreaks havoc. So we thought it was important for us to pause and really take a deep dive into what the face of the intersection of ageism and race and class actually looks like.

My first guest, Ashton Applewhite, is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn. She is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, and has been recognized by the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, and the American Society on Aging as a leading expert on ageism, or discrimination on the basis of age.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: So Ashton, we're in the middle of a global pandemic. If we think and look and understand, we might be able to come out of this with a better understanding of ageism, its various functions and how it operates. But just as a start, what's a series of images or things you've heard that are your point of departure for thinking about this?

Ashton Applewhite: Well, I have to say I'm recording this from my house in busy Brooklyn and for once in my life I don't have to worry about trucks rolling by and sirens, which is great but creepy. I also watched just half an hour ago some footage from an emergency room in Italy, which is being used as an intensive care unit. Italy paradoxically is one of the oldest in terms of average population age and least ageist Western countries. The generations mix, which is one reason the infection rates are so high.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Wow.

Ashton Applewhite: Yeah. But that of course does not explain or justify the high mortality, which is that we are unprepared and we should've taken better measures. I live in New York, which is about to become the global epicenter of this. We are woefully underprepared. And there is no doubt in my mind that pervasive ageism, and I have to say ableism right on its heels, is a huge reason globally for our laxness. This doctrine, wash your hands, stay six feet apart from people, but don't worry too much because only old people and people with chronic illnesses are going to be affected. So people didn't worry.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And, let's dive in right there because I think this is an important moment and point of departure for us to understand- you'll be fine as long as you do these things because it mostly impacts old people or people with underlying health conditions. So if we were to say what is ageist about that, what would we say?

Ashton Applewhite: We are being ageist anytime we make an assumption about someone or a group of people on the basis of age. And it can be young people too, kids are like that, whatever. So it really affects everyone. But we live in a youth-obsessed consumer-driven society that we sell stuff by showing beautiful young people to everyone and commercializing youth. And at its ugly heart, and it pains me even to say out loud, but is the idea that to age is to lose value as a human being. And at the heart of ableism is the notion that if you are less than physically perfect, I mean frankly the further we deviate from thin, white male, the further down the food chain you are, the harder it is to be seen, to have privilege, to have equity. As you know better than anyone, all prejudice operates to pit us against each other. In the case of ageism, old against young. It's not helpful to break it down that way. We are all in this together, boy.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah. Well speaking of breaking down, we've been seeing memes that suggest this virus might be best thought of as the boomer remover. So there’s that. And then there's the reality that decisions are now being made about who lives and who dies on the basis of age. How should we be thinking about all of these things right now?

Ashton Applewhite: Progressives are always at a disadvantage because we will honestly admit that it's complicated. The death of an 80-year-old person is sad, especially if it was preventable and sad and wrong. If that person's life could have been saved and the decision was not made simply on the basis of the assumption that who cares about them or they had shitty quality of life. However, the death of an 80-year-old is less tragic on some level, some absolute level. Than the death of an 18-year-old because they have experienced more of what life has to offer. But it doesn't mean that the loss of anyone you love or who is loved by other people isn't a terrible source of grief. And to lose it in this way alone, alone, alone, on the floor in some barracks surrounded by people suffocating to death in a way that could have been prevented is unthinkably terrible.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: The imagery that you just painted for us really reminded me of the image from hurricane Katrina that still makes it impossible for me actually really get through a sentence. There was a picture of somebody's mother, grandmother in a wheelchair with a blanket over because she had died there and that often gets dismissed as, well, she was older or she had underlying health conditions, all those things being true. But the conditions of her death are the things that can be changed. That didn't have to be. And too much of the focus on the former absolves people and our society from the conditions that hastened her demise. That makes me worry about what's happening now. The fact that it is disproportionately older people that I think allows folks to absolve us from the manmade dimensions of this disaster.

Ashton Applewhite: Beautifully put, I couldn't say it better. Older people and people with underlying conditions would die at higher rates even in the socialist non-racist, non-agency, non-ableist paradise of our dreams. That's biology, but not in these numbers. These numbers are preventable. When I think about that term, boomer remover, really? Did they spring from Zeus's forehead? They probably have mothers. They probably have grandmothers. If they stopped to think, I know that's a big ask in Trump's America. Do they really, really want their parents to be dead on their neighbors to be dead? I don't think so. I think they haven't stopped to think.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: So I wonder if you think, Ashton, if as this was starting to travel around the world and the demographic that was most readily identified as being most at risk was either a younger demographic. Initially, a wider demographic or a wealthier demographic, would the preparation have looked different than it currently does?

Ashton Applewhite: Hell yes. And don't take it from me, take it from the director general of the World Health Organization and look at my twitter feed at This Chair Rocks for the citation. I don't have it in front of me. Literally saying ageism responsible for lax- I mean he cited a number of countries and it's assumed that the United States was among them. Ageism as a driving factor behind the lax response.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And you know, we've been talking about the intersections of aging and race. I'm also interested in your thoughts about the intersections of aging and patriarchy of age and gender. Because one of the things that I've started to think about is the fact that women tend to be less partnered the older they get as opposed to men. Now we're at a moment where lack of partnering is potentially lethal. We're looking at an extended lockdown. A lot of people are isolated, don't have access to just human contact. I think folks don't have a way of seeing that as also socially constructed as well. Not just a matter of choice and not just a matter of, oh well men die sooner. But a matter ofolder women are less valuable.

Ashton Applewhite: We make less money. We are penalized for time out of the workforce, typically spent on unpaid caregiving. The discrinination compounds and compounds, sexism and ageism, of course, intersect. Women live longer. We're sicker. And add ageism to it, add ableism to it. That is why the poorest of the poor and sickest of the sick are old women of color everywhere.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: You point out some of the structural cultural dimensions, and then there are the racial structures as well. So that agricultural workers, domestic workers don't even have access to social security. So across each of these different categories. Gender and age intersect with the structure of work to create these burdens that get heavier the older we get.

Ashton Applewhite: And the less physical strength we have to carry them, we may still have psychic strength. But we have urbanization, and we have capitalism, of course. That has fragmented society as we don't live in small mixed age groups anymore, and we don't. They didn't do that to get rid of the old people. But just like the invention of the printing press, that was really bad for old people, because we used to be the holders of wisdom. I'm not sorry they invented. reading and writing. These things happen.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Well, when you think about the possibilities of this moment ... we talked a little bit about the worry that it naturalizes sort of the dying off of older people. But also, this moment might open up possibilities. I kind of want to think of it as a black hole, too, to a new future. What's the black hole to the other side that you're hoping to see?

Ashton Applewhite: I would love to see the pandemic be a vehicle for conversations about intersectionality in the broadest sense. Again, because the pandemic affects us all. Because aging affects us all. Because nothing has made manifest so starkly ever before in human history ... that we are all connected and all vulnerable, whether you are rich or poor. The virus is infecting everyone. I am also in a narrower sense keenly interested in addressing in particular the intersection of ageism and ableism. Nobody wants to go anywhere near it for the most part.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And why do you think that? Why do you think it's such an off-topic for so many people?

Ashton Applewhite: Because I think it's at the heart of our darkest fears around aging, which I think is human. No one wants to think that they're going to lose physical or cognitive capacity. Cognitive decline, by the way, is not inevitable. Physical decline is, so it does make us look the scary stuff in the eye. What we know is that no matter what it is, it's less scary once you look at it. The older a person is, the less their age tells you about what they're capable of. Heterogeneity increases with time.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: I think that needs to be emphasized. Say that again. The older-

Ashton Applewhite: ... we are, the more different from one another we become. Every seven-year-old is unique, but they have way more in common physically, developmentally, socially than 17 year-olds. We're way more alike than 47, and so on. And yet we think old people become the elderly. Point number two, let's get rid of the term 'the elderly.' If they said COVID was more dangerous for older people, you wouldn't have all these boomers who are frankly in total age denial. And I wish they wouldn't, because age denial is where ageism gets started. You may not be elderly, whatever that means, but you are older. Acknowledge it, right? Because as long as you're on the hamster wheel of denial, you’ve got to start to deal with it intelligently and get over this sort of reflexive fear and dread of your own future, which is not healthy. So what you have is dual stigma. "I may be disabled, but at least I'm not old. I may be old, but at least I can still run up the stairs, or whatever it is." We all have those things. We cling to them. But think what the disability justice activists, it was disability rights then, and who got the ADA passed. Now, that was largely about mobility. It was largely the work of white men, but it still did a lot of good stuff. They changed disability from a personal misfortune into a social problem.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yes. And a structural feature.

Ashton Applewhite: Structural issue. The problem is not that I'm in a wheelchair. The problem is that-

Kimberlé Crenshaw: You have stairs, right?

Ashton Applewhite: The problem is those stairs there. That's what we need to do around aging. And if you can extrapolate out from that, where are the stairs of COVID? How can we identify those stairs that face all of us and see this at ... take our global vulnerability as a chance to bond with the most vulnerable and tackle it at that elemental level in whatever way is most important to each of us?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah, yeah.

Ashton Applewhite: Age is a universal condition and so is disability. Because we will all age into some form of it, and with age uniquely we are born in a position of less privilege. We're helpless at birth, and we sort of age into maximum privilege, and out of it again. These are powerful ideas with so many ways in. I think it's important to focus on those two things because they affect all genders, all races, all countries.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Everyone.


And how can we take those two universals and build out from there?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: That's beautiful. It's unfortunate, it’s actually a statement about the human condition that it takes something like this to bring us to the recognition of what's obvious, the interconnectedness among all of us, right? This is a continuum in which everybody is on. It's also one in which there is no permanent hierarchy. There's a lot of conversation about ageism within progressive spaces, but most of it focuses on the exclusion of young people. That becomes almost the only way in which we think about the problem rather than actually ... we have to think about appropriate ways of inclusion across the age spectrum. It's not simply reversing one hierarchy or another.

Ashton Applewhite: I think every human being should ideally have equal value. And what we want is a society that acknowledges the very real differences, weaknesses, good things about every stage of life without organizing them into a system of social inequality, right?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: That’s very helpful. I've been struggling through how to think about this moment, and it was very helpful to have someone who's been thinking about the broader issues for a long time and is prepared to help us in this particular moment when all eyes are on this issue right now. So, thank you very much.

Ashton Applewhite: My pleasure. Thank you.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Willie “JR” Fleming is a long-time community leader and human rights defender. His activism and organizing work began with the devastating impacts of the demolition of public housing. Through his work, he was awarded the US Human Rights Builder Award in 2013. JR is also a leading national advocate for women’s ex-offender re-entry program, and has been involved in several successful eviction defenses. JR, welcome to Intersectionality Matters.

JR Fleming: Thank you for having me. Thank you, thank you.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: So we’ve been reading reports. So the story we heard last week about how in Chicago nearly 50 housing facilities for low-income seniors were used as polling locations. So first of all, how did you come to find out about the crisis?

JR Fleming: We got a text message that they were closing the senior buildings, they were not gonna allow polling at the senior buildings. I'm like, "Yeah, smart decision. Way to go, Cooke County, Illinois” Then I got another text that said, "You won't believe this." I said, "Hit me." "They're taking them to the senior buildings of the public housing folks." I thought they said no senior facility would be open. But they wasn't counting us.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah. We, our seniors aren't the ones that they're-

JR Fleming: Trying to protect. Just made a hierarchical decision to take into the senior places where low income folks and subsidized housing under HUD benefits lived. They opened them up, exposing them to the vulnerability and risk. Now this is against the objection of the Chicago Board of Elections. We had one guy, Mr. Bill. He said we should have to be faced with an emotional crisis, doing our duty of protecting our own health, right? This is an older guy who works for the Board of Election, who resigned that day, said I'm not doing this. Right? He wanted no parts of this, right? You're not going to say that I discriminated against my people. That's not going to happen, I'm out of here.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: